William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

Glenn C. Altschuler reviews the new biography by Robert D. Richardson in the Boston Globe:

Screenhunter_01_dec_27_1307Since his death, in 1910, James has not been forgotten. Along with brother Henry and sister Alice, James has been hailed as a member of America’s premier intellectual family. His great books — “The Principles of Psychology,” “Pragmatism,” “The Will to Believe,” and “Varieties of Religious Experience” — continue to be read. For his contributions to the structure of philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead ranked him with Plato, Aristotle , and Leibni z. James remains a patron saint of anti-imperialism. Howard Feinstein, R. Laurence Moore, and Louis Menand have written brilliant books about James’s decision to abandon art for a career in science, his interest in religion and parapsychology, and his membership in Cambridge’s Metaphysical Club. But no full-length narrative biography of him has appeared in a generation.

In “William James,” Robert Richardson, whose previous subjects were Thoreau and Emerson, seeks to understand James’s “life through his work, not the other way around.” Richardson presents no new interpretations of James’s theories of pragmatism and pluralism. Nor does he attempt to critique them. But he has a knack for explaining complex ideas clearly and elegantly and for bringing to life a fascinating character. Various William Jameses, Richardson suggests, lived inside the man: As he willed himself into optimism, he was often sad, irritable, and depressed. But the “central” or “essential” James was an apostle of activity, spontaneity, doubt, chance, and chaos, “astonishingly, even alarmingly open to new experiences,” including a headlong plunge into the maelstrom of American modernism.

In his personal as well as his professional life, Richardson points out, James was an irrepressible experimenter. He smoked opium , and recorded his responses to it in his diary. He climbed mountains, even after he was diagnosed with angina. He invited W.E.B. DuBois, a graduate student at Harvard, to his home, when few professors had social relations with African-Americans. And he was a “natural philanderer ” who refused to conceal his crushes from his wife.

More here.